Ron Miller Anthony Dexter
The Man Who Played Valentino
Dexter posed for the author in a Monterey, Calif., hotel room in the late 1950s, displaying his "Rudy" profile.
Famous one day, obscure the next
--Dexter never got a second chance
By RON MILLER
IT TOOK 10 days for the papers to catch up to the fact that Anthony Dexter, the overnight sensation who starred in the hit 1951 movie "Valentino," had died in obscurity in the town of Greeley, Colorado, last March 27.
One reason is that the actor had long since given up his Hollywood name and was known as Walter Craig at the time of his death. But it probably wouldn't have made much difference anyway since hardly anyone remembered Anthony Dexter, the Hollywood star who faded from the limelight almost as fast as he arrived there in an orgasm of national publicity.
If you live a genuinely obscure life, almost nobody gets anything right about you in your obituary because nobody ever bothered to check the facts in the first place. The L.A. Times obituary listed his real name as Walter Craig and his age as 88, but Leslie Halliwell's Filmgoers' Companion, a standard movie reference book, lists his real name as Walter Fleischmann and his birthdate as 1919, which would have made him 81 or 82 when he died.
I don't know who's right, although I'm inclined to believe he was around 30-31 when he starred in "Valentino," which would place him in his early 80s last month. What's kind of peculiar, though, is the fact that Dexter was used to that sort of thing. He had lived his life with constant reminders of his "has been" status and knew the reason why: His uncanny resemblance to Rudolph Valentino, a Hollywood immortal who's still vividly "remembered" even though hardly anyone is still alive who actually knew him.
My connection with Anthony Dexter is very ephemeral. I saw him in "Valentino" and its follow-up, "The Brigand," a sort of spin on Valentino's silent movie "The Eagle." At the time, I was a junior high school kid. By the time I got to high school, he was making low budget pictures for Robert L. Lippert, a schlock producer of cheap programmers like "Captain John Smith and Pocahontas," "Captain Kidd and the Slave Girl" and "The Black Pirates," still being forced to mimic Valentino in tawdry swashbucklers that buckled where they should have swashed. In short, he was already over with as a movie star.
In the late 1950s, when I was working my way through college as a freelance writer and doing part-time work as a reporter for my local newspaper in Santa Cruz, Calif., Dexter had gone back to summer stock, which brought him to nearby Monterey, Calif., to play the king opposite Patricia Morison in a summer production of "The King and I." I asked for an interview and he graciously agreed.
Two things struck me right away when I met Dexter in Monterey and began talking with him in his hotel room: He really did look amazingly like Rudolph Valentino--and he was an incredibly likeable, disarmingly candid sort of guy.
"I've never cared much for publicity," Dexter told me. "I'd rather just go my own way and do my work with no fanfare."
He explained why: The studio publicity people faked virtually every fact about him when they made up his biography for "Valentino." For one thing, they claimed he'd been found working on a farm and was cast in the leading role in a major studio production simply because he bore a striking resemblance to Valentino.
In fact, Dexter explained, he had a master's degree in theater arts and had been a college drama teacher. What's more, he had loads of stage experience as an actor, had toured with Katharine Cornell, had been in a command performance at the Royal Theatre in Denmark and was, at the time, working on his doctorate in theatre arts. He had appeared in many Broadway shows, including "The Barretts of Wimpole Street."
He blamed the awesome burst of publicity surrounding "Valentino" for permanently sticking him with the image of a long-dead romantic swashbuckler from silent movie days. In fact, all his movies of the 1950s tried to capitalize on his "Rudy" look with the slicked-back hair, flaring nostrils and feline eyes. It was as if Hollywood wanted to reincarnate Valentino rather than develop Dexter as his own persona.
Anthony Dexter in costume as Rudolph Valentino in the 1951 "Valentino," reproducing a famous pose from "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."
Dexter had been under contract to producer Edward Small, who did "Valentino," and broke the contract rather than keep doing ersatz Valentino pictures. Right away he discovered that's all any producers wanted to do with him--only for less money.
"It was the stupidest thing I ever did in my life," Dexter told me. "(Small) would have pulled me out of the Valentino mold in time and given me career security, too. But I didn't know many answers then."
Ultimately, Dexter's movie career skidded to a halt after he starred in some of the all-time worst science-fiction films in Hollywood history, especially the notorious "Fire Maidens of Outer Space" and "The Phantom Planet." Finally billed as just plain "Tony" Dexter, he had broken out of the Valentino mold, all right, but into something considerably worse.
"I made three pilot films for television," he told me. "Two of them were swashbucklers. But the networks went for westerns at the last minute."
In his later years, Dexter returned to teaching. He taught speech and drama at a Los Angeles high school for most of the 1970s. He was living in retirement in Colorado when he died last month.
For more than 40 years, I've seen at least once every day the photo I took of Anthony Dexter on the day of our interview. I thought it was a pretty good shot, so I framed it and hung it among a few others on the wall behind my writing desk. It also reminds me that he was a good guy, willing to help a young journalist even if it meant doing something he really didn't want to do.
"I suppose you want me like this," he told me that day, turning his face so his profile was in the morning light coming through the window of his room. "That's my best Valentino side."
© 2001 by Ron Miller. The photo at the top of the page is by Ron Miller and appeared first in The Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper. The photo of Dexter as Valentino is by Cronenweth and is ©1950 by Columbia Pictures.
You can comment on this column or contact Ron Miller with an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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